I rested my head against the frigid ground. It wouldn’t be much longer now. I was numb all over. My breathing had slowed. My heart was barely pumping. I’d fall asleep here, and that would be the end. “I’m…glad…you’re…here…Graham.” Talking was difficult. I hadn’t done it in a long time. It had been a long time since I’d been able to feel the place where our arms touched. I couldn’t feel much of anything anymore. “I…don’t want…to…die…alone.”
There wasn’t a response for quite some time. Finally, Graham murmured, “Die? I can’t…die. I’m already…dead.”
I tried to formulate a response, but my thoughts were sluggish.
“Wait,” said Graham, sounding more alert. “I’m dead. And all of this is an illusion. We don’t have bodies. We can’t freeze. We’re in the spirit world .” He shook me. “Jason, you have to concentrate. We have to will ourselves out of this place. Come on, help me. Picture the sky, and the grass, and the trees. Picture us out of here.”
“There’s no point,” I said.
“Jason! Do it.”
To humor him, I formed a mental image of the lush forest we’d been inside before we came here. I remembered how soft the grass had been. That had been nice. I’d like to be lying on that soft grass now, instead of freezing to death in the dark. I sighed.
Beside me, Graham whooped.
I hadn’t realized my eyes were closed until I opened them. All around us was a carpet of soft, green grass. The sun was blazing down on us. We weren’t inside the black tunnel anymore. Slowly, I got to my feet and looked around. “That was it? That was all it took?”
“I admit it would have been better if I’d had my idea before things got so desperate,” said Graham. “But the Darkness is unknown. By its very nature, it is fear. Fear makes it nearly impossible to think.”
I closed my eyes and let the rays of sun warm my face.
“We have to get you to the center of Light,” said Graham. “It’s in the Spiritus Mundi, and also inside Kieran and Eve. Concentrate on getting there. You’ve got to stop Azazel.”
The center of Light was a tall building with gleaming spires. Two guards stood in front of its severe white gate, each in crisp white uniforms. “You,” they sneered when they saw me. “Come to grovel, have you?”
They had British accents. Go figure.
“Let me in,” I said. I wasn’t in the mood to argue. Who knows how much time had been wasted inside the tunnel. Azazel could have gotten to Chance by now.
“You’ve done nothing but spit in our faces, you know?” said a guard. “I don’t really think you’re in a position to give demands.”
“Let me in,” I said again.
“Yes, well,” said the other guard, “there is the matter of the password. Do you know the password?”
Were they kidding me? I sighed. “No, I don’t know any password.”
“No one enters the gates without the password,” said the first guard.
“Do I get a hint?”
The guards didn’t say anything.
Fine. I’d play. “Order,” I said.
They shook their heads.
“Structure,” I said.
More head shaking.
“No,” said the second guard. He was starting to smile, as if he were enjoying this.
“Manipulation,” I said. “Frustration. Idiocy.”
Now the guards were both glaring at me.
“Fine,” I said. “How am I supposed to figure out this password?”
“Well, there is a procedure for being put on the list of those who know the password and can enter,” said the first guard. “You’ll need to pop round the side of the building and visit the Password Acquisition Office. There’s a form that needs to be filled out in triplicate and then notarized. Afterwards, you’ll need the signatures of—”
I punched the guard in the nose. “I really don’t have time for that.”
“Ow,” said the guard, clutching his face.
I felt guilty. Apparently, I really had lost all my Darkness. “I’m really sorry,” I said. And I was. “But I don’t have time for this. I need to get inside. Now.”
“ I’m sorry,” said the guard behind his hand. His voice was nasally because he was holding his wounded nose. “We can’t let you in without the password.”
“My son is in danger,” I said. “Do you have a son? Oh, of course, you don’t. You’re nothing more than an aspect of the Light, and you people deal only in guilt and shame and ordering people around. I don’t even see how you can help me.” I ran my hands through my hair and turned away from the gate. I was going to have to find another way in.
“Excuse me,” said the guard. “Did you say your son is in danger?”
I turned back around. “Yes.” Were they going to help me?
“You don’t think it’s him, do you?” asked one guard of the other.
“I have no idea. I suppose it could be.”
“You see,” the first guard said to me, “there was a memo that was distributed about ten minutes ago. It said if a man who was trying to save his son came seeking entrance, then we should let him in without any hassle.”
“That’s me, obviously,” I said. I’d been expected? How weird was this?
“Well, of course you’d say it was you now,” said the second guard. “Any idiot can agree that he’s the person from a memo.”
I could feel rage building within me. No wonder the Light made so many people turn to Darkness.
“I think we’d better let him in,” said the first guard.
“If you’re sure,” said the second guard.
“Let me in,” I rumbled.
The guards opened the gates.
A brilliant beam of white light burst out of them, blinding me. Covering my eyes, I staggered inside.
“The Rising Sun,” said an ethereal female voice from somewhere inside the brightness. “It’s about time you realized you needed us.”
I squinted. “Where are you?”
“Open your eyes,” said the voice. “Open them wide.”
I struggled to do as I was told. The light was so bright. As I lifted my eyelids, it seared into me. I couldn’t see. It was painful, the way looking directly into the sun is. But as my eyes opened wider, I realized the light was burning into my body, filling me up with bright warmth.
“Yes,” sighed the voice. “Take it all.”
It all streaked by me, centuries of civilization. Temples, roads, armies, city walls, castles. I felt it as each spark of humanity flew up while they were constructed. I felt the sparks flow into me, making me stronger and more luminous. I felt my power grow. I saw the people like ants, roaming to and fro, working so hard to give me more and more of themselves. I felt myself balloon full of their sparks, their life. I was imperious and strong, stern and commanding. And I always knew best. Knew better than the little things who begged for me to make things easier for them. Easier. Certainly. I would take the difficulty from them. I would make the world safe and sterile and ordered. I was the Light. Civilization. I rallied the armies of Rome, and they trooped all over Europe, spreading the Light where they could. They erected roads. They built baths. They brought currency and trade. There was slaughter too. The Darkness. I saw it, and it called to me, whispered to me in its seductive voice. I sent ships to Africa, to that hub of Darkness and savagery. I whispered in their ears that they had the Light inside them, the burden of bringing their ways to the primitives there. There was slaughter. There was disease. And the Darkness whispered to me that no matter what I did, destruction would reign. I could not eradicate it. The Darkness wove its inky fingers into all my best plans. A unified Germany with gorgeously efficient roads became an oven that spit the smoke of burning human flesh into the sky. A system of communication that crossed all boundaries became the vehicle of predators who wanted to hurt children. And the Darkness whispered to me that it was inside everything, that the more I fought it, the more it became part of everything I did. And the more unified I became, the more it seemed that Darkness seeped into everything.
I shrieked at the agony of it, of all the best laid plans being destroyed. How had it begun? How had all of this become so full of strife and conflict?
And then suddenly, I remembered.
I had to go to her.
I found her standing at the edge of the Spiritus Mundi, her fingers sticking through the thin membrane that separated us from reality. She was stroking the hair of a small boy with red hair. It took a moment, because there was so much inside me now—the history of the world from inception to the present, in addition to everything I’d been as Jason Wodden.
But I did remember him. Chance.
“Stop,” I said to her, to Azazel, to the Darkness.
She turned to me, as dazzlingly beautiful as she’d been before. But then, she was always seductive. I always wanted her. But I knew that she wanted me too. That seeing me now, imbued with the Light, would draw her to me. When she looked into my eyes, she sucked in a breath, astonished. “You did find me.”
“Don’t hurt the boy,” I said.
I reached through the membrane myself and entwined my fingers with hers. I pulled both our hands back into the Spiritus Mundi. She didn’t resist. Her eyes followed me, intrigued by me.
“Remember,” I said to her, pulling her close, fitting my hands against the small of her back. “Remember.” And I pressed my lips against hers.
The Darkness huddled on one side of the room and the Light on the other. The two of us surveyed each other like frightened children. It was early in Time. The humans were young and headstrong, whipping their ways across the lands of the world, changing everything. Nothing had ever ripped us apart this way before. We’d never been separated. Always, always, we’d been two entwined sparks, each contained in every living thing. One Light, One Dark. We’d balanced each other. We’d kept the world in harmony. Now, with the humans splitting us up with their sheer will, we were lonely and confused.
I wanted to reach across the boundary to touch the Dark again. My beautiful Darkness. Without it, I was only half of something, not a whole being.
I could feel the mournful longing of the Dark reaching back towards me, the Light, wanting to be joined again. “They will realize they made a mistake, and that they can’t separate us.”
“Will they?” I asked. “Already there are sparks amongst us—both Light and Dark—who do not seem to remember it was better when we were entwined. They enforce the conflict, keep us apart. The Separatists.”
“It will work itself out,” said my Darkness. “Let them struggle into it, fight their way back.”
“No,” I said. “We must do something to fix this.”
“Says the Light. It is just like you to want to force your way onto everything else.”
“And it is just like you to let everything wander confused and terrified without the solace of its other half.”
We didn’t speak for a moment. We felt anger. It was agony to despise the other part of ourselves in this way.
“A compromise?” I finally asked. “We will let them try to find their way for a set amount of time, and if they have not done so by then, we will intrude.”
“How long?” asked the Darkness, a bit wary.
“As long as you’d like,” I said.
“Until a year that mirrors itself,” said the Darkness. “Until I am satisfied that they are all lost.”
“Agreed,” I said.
“And what will we do?”
“We will force the Separatists to remember what they do not—that we belong together, because we are attracted by the strongest force in the universe. Love.”
“Agreed,” said the Darkness.
I waited a long time. Centuries passed. The humans allowed me to grow very powerful. The ranks of the Separatists grew, but there were those of us who always held firm, who always remembered our lovely Darkness, our other half, our balance. We wanted her back. We longed for her.
Finally, the Darkness returned to us. “The mirror year has arrived.”
Tiny infants housed us as vessels. We—all the sparks who missed each other, the sparks who wanted to be joined—buried ourselves inside the infants. And we drew to those infants more power than had ever been imagined. The Separatists grew powerful. They fought and fought against our vessels. They tried to kill them. They tried all manner of things, since somehow, they sensed that the power that filled these vessels was their own power. They tried to use it, to control it, to sway the vessels to one side or another. But they were never quite successful, because the power inside the vessels was stronger than anything they could imagine. It was not truly the power of either Light or Darkness. In fact, our vessels absorbed each power almost indiscriminately. Light and Darkness belonged together. The power inside the vessels was the power of love. They were so absorbed in their petty separation and in their conflict, that they could not see it or understand it.
But I understood. When I burst out of the woods that night, sweaty and frightened, and happened upon that parked truck, I had found her. The Darkness. My beautiful Darkness. And together, we were joined. We would bring balance back to the universe.
I was Jason Wodden, the Rising Sun, and she was the Vessel of Azazel. And inside each of us were the Light and the Darkness, the most ancient powers in existence. We were drawn to each other because we were pieces of each other. No matter what happened, we were meant to be together and to get to this moment now, where we joined together to right the wrongs of the past.
Our kiss ended. Azazel gazed into my eyes. “And so we did it.”
I nodded. “We did.”
“But…” she trailed off, examining her body. “What am I? Am I the all-powerful forces of the Dark, or am I Azazel Jones?”
“Both,” I said. “We’re both. And now that we have the power all together again, it remembers. Do you feel it? There’s no strife anymore. No conflict.”
“And now,” she said, her eyes lighting up, “we give it back to the people—each their own tiny entwined spark. A perfect balance of Light and Dark. And we stay vigilant. We use these human vessels to make sure we’re never divided again.”
“Yes,” I said. I wanted to kiss her again.
Her eyes grew troubled. “But we can’t go back, Jason. Can we?”
I hadn’t realized. The part of me that was all-consuming Light didn’t really care. It belonged in the Spiritus Mundi. But the part of me that was Jason Wodden suddenly knew that he was never going to see his son again. My face fell.
Azazel laughed sadly. “I knew I was never going to have babies. Didn’t I tell you it wouldn’t happen?”
I wrapped my arms around her. “I’m so sorry.”
She rested her head against my chest. “It’s okay. It’s better. This is what we were made for. And somehow, deep down, we’ve always known that, I think.”
“It was in the way we were drawn to each other like magnets,” I said.
“It was in the way we could never be apart,” she said. She pulled away, her eyes bright. “There’s one baby we can create, though.”
Azazel snapped her fingers, and we were back with Kieran and Eve again. They were both wandering around the tree line, looking worried.
“Where have you two been?” Kieran demanded. “Something happened to us.”
“There was this weird pulling sensation,” said Eve, “and we both felt weaker.”
“We took your powers,” I said. “I’m sorry.
Azazel smiled at Eve. “We do have what we wanted from you. But we won’t break our word. We will give you a child.” She glanced at me. “However, I’m sure you’ll agree that there is no reason this child should be born of Darkness only.”
“Darkness and Light,” I said, “should never be apart.”
She inclined her head. “You taught me that.”
“No,” I said. “You taught me that.”
“But without our powers,” said Kieran, “what will happen to us? We’ll get back there, and we’ll be mobbed. People will be angry.”
“You may have to run away and hide for a bit,” Azazel said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Away from people. Pretty much all people, considering you were controlling their brains for years.”
Eve reached for Kieran’s hand, her eyes wide. “As long as we’re together.”
Kieran nodded reassuringly.
“Do you still want the baby?” Azazel asked.
“Yes,” said Eve.
“Of course,” said Kieran.
We each took one of Eve’s hands and together, we pulled bits of her and bits of Kieran together. We imbued them with Darkness and Light, gave them shape, a heartbeat, a spark. And we placed the newly formed life inside Eve. Then, without speaking, we sent them back to their lives, to reality.
Then it was just the two of us.
Except for Graham, who was also there. He was gaping at us.
I smiled at him. “It’s okay. We understand now. The answer was inside us.”
Graham was shaking his head. “I don’t know if I completely understood exactly what you two were. Now that I see you, you’re so…awe-inspiring.”
“You know how to flatter a girl, don’t you, Graham?” Azazel said.
“But why did you say it would destroy us?” I asked him. “It made us whole.”
“I know the answer to this.” Azazel snapped her fingers. We were immediately back in the room we’d been in with the Light Agnes. Her tarot cards were still spread out on the table. Graham looked around, startled to have moved so quickly.
Azazel tapped a card. “The Hanged Man. The sacrifice. Now that we have the powers, we can never go back.”
I nodded. “Right. We’ve lost our ability to be human anymore. If we did, it would happen all over again. People would give up their sparks. It’s what people do. If we stay here, we’ll be able to keep the balance. We’ll keep only enough power to maintain it and no more.”
Azazel touched another card. “Death. A transition to a new level of life.” She smiled up at me. “That’s what we’ve done here. We’ve transitioned.”
“And we’ll always have each other.” I showed her the Lovers card.
“Forever,” she said. “For eternity.”
Graham put his hands in his pockets. “And this doesn’t bother you? You’ll be in the Spiritus Mundi forever. You can never go back to your real life.”
“As long as we’re together,” said Azazel. “Then this is real life.”
“Two huge forces of ancient power took hold of our bodies so that they could find each other and end conflict,” I said. “I pretty much think trying to have a normal human life pales in comparison to that. This is our responsibility. We haven’t been destroyed at all. We’ve been reborn. I’ve never felt so alive.”
Azazel nodded. “Yes.” She smiled at Graham. “Do you want to watch?”
“Do it,” said Graham.
Azazel blew on the tarot cards, and they scattered. I stretched out my hand and let the power burst out of my palm. She opened her mouth, and the power streamed out of her. We felt it flit away from us, leave the reach of the Spiritus Mundi, and we felt individually entwined sparks of Light and Dark fly out into people everywhere. The sparks would stay there. We’d make sure of it. We’d be here. No longer would people be insignificant, insects in the face of Light and Dark. Now people would have the power inside themselves. Each person.
When we were done, I felt lighter.
Graham was beaming. “You did it.”
“Together,” I said.
“Always together,” said Azazel. She snapped her fingers again. We were back inside the lush forest with the carpet of emerald under our toes, which were bare. Azazel wore a long, flowing white dress, and I wore similar loose white clothes. She offered me her hand. I took it.
And together, we strode off into the forest.
“There you are,” said Hallam, stepping into the hospital room. It contained two beds, each with a motionless body lying in them. Both bodies were strapped in and hooked up to all manner of beeping and blinking machines. The machines breathed for the bodies. They kept the bodies alive.
Marlena looked up from where she was sitting opposite the two beds. “I had to come in and look at them again.”
“I came to look for you after signing the discharge papers,” said Hallam. “You weren’t in your room anymore.”
“Sorry,” she said.
“You’re really feeling okay?”
Marlena got to her feet. “Hallam, I’ve been under doctor’s observation here for two days. There’s nothing wrong but some bruising. Kieran just didn’t punch me that hard. Besides, I’m tough. You know that.”
“I do know that,” said Hallam. He put his arm around her. “I’m so thankful you’re okay.”
Marlena kissed him on the cheek. “Speaking of Kieran, I caught a little of the news on the TV earlier.” She pointed at the television set bolted to the wall in the room. “They still haven’t found him or Eve. Some of their belongings were gone and one of their cars, but no one’s been able to find it so far.”
“They probably hightailed it out once they lost their powers,” said Hallam. “In the mess that’s been going on since then, I’m not surprised no one’s found them.”
“It’s kind of amazing there’s so little mess, actually,” said Marlena. “I mean the hospitals are functioning. Public transportation’s running. There aren’t mobs in the streets. I would have thought the minute that everyone got back their…anger and pain and everything else that’s negative, the world would have exploded even worse. But it’s as though people are so…balanced. Have you noticed?”
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” said Hallam. “You ready to go?”
Marlena turned back to the bodies on the beds. “I guess so. There’s nothing I can do for them by sitting and staring at them.” She sighed. “Do you think they did something?”
“They’re in a coma,” said Hallam. “What could they have done?”
“I don’t know. It’s just that everything seems to have worked out so well, and they were the only people that could possibly have had enough power to do that.”
“While they were unconscious?”
“Maybe,” said Marlena. “I’ve seen a lot of really weird things in the past ten years or so, Hallam.” She rested her head on his shoulder. “Do you think they’ll ever wake up?”
“The doctors say they don’t have brain damage,” said Hallam. “They say it’s possible. It could happen at any time.”
“Somehow,” said Marlena, “I don’t think they will.”
“We’ll be close if they do,” said Hallam. “It’s good we had them transferred here to New Jersey. The Hoyt house is a ten-minute drive away.”
“I know,” said Marlena. “It will be strange living in that house without them.”
“Are you kidding? Everything’s been strange. Maybe my whole life.” He gestured with his head. “Come on. That house we’re talking about is sitting empty right now, and Palomino and Chance could be arriving there at any second.”
Marlena nodded. She let Hallam lead her out of the hospital room, leaving the sleeping forms of Jason and Azazel behind.
In another wing of the hospital, a woman was putting on her jacket as she left an examining room. A man helped her, holding out the jacket so that she could get her arms in the sleeves. The woman was crying. “There’s a baby,” she whispered to the man. “Perfectly healthy.”
The man shook his head. “How’d they do it?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” said the woman. She kissed him.
A nurse walking by the couple stopped. She wrinkled her brow. “You know,” she said to them. “It’s the funniest thing, but you two remind me of Kieran and Eve. The hair color’s wrong, of course, but you look just like them.”
The woman laughed uneasily. “We get that all the time, don’t we?”
The man nodded. “Yeah. But we’re having a baby, and Kieran and Eve couldn’t.”
“Oh,” said the nurse. “Well, congratulations.”
The man and woman linked hands and made their way to the hospital parking lot, where they planned to get in their car and drive far, far away. When they looked into each other’s eyes, they felt as if they’d just woken up, like the moments leading up to this one had all been part of one big nightmare, and that from now on, things were going to be better.
Across the parking lot, Hallam and Marlena got into their car and drove back to the Hoyt mansion, the house they’d lived in years earlier with Azazel, Jason, Chance, Palomino, and their daughter Jenna. The house had weathered a lot in the subsequent years. After all, there had been an apocalypse. But it was a fortress, the way some old, stately mansions are. They pulled into the driveway to see a car already parked ahead of them.
A small boy in a t-shirt too big for him was kneeling in the driveway, gathering smooth stones. He had a fiery shock of red hair and huge brown eyes. When he saw them, he smiled, and his face resembled his father’s so much that Marlena got choked up. Chance.
Mina was pulling suitcases out of the back of the car and yelling at Chance to stop looking for skipping rocks and help her with the luggage. But when she saw Marlena and Hallam, she dropped the suitcases to run to them. They each embraced Mina in turn.
She called over her shoulder for Chance to come say hi to Marlena and Hallam.
Chance made a face. “Are they going to hug me?”
Hallam offered his hand. “How about a handshake, little man?”
Chance put down his rocks and wandered over to Hallam, reaching out his own hand.
“Welcome home,” said Hallam.
Thanks for coming on this journey with me! Check out The Toil and Trouble Trilogy!